O Brother Where Art Thou?
One of my favourite runs is up to my old home town of Northampton over the Cotswolds – I take the scenic route along the old Fosse Way (a thrilling roller-coaster of a ride – straight but hilly) through Tetbury, Cirencester, then onto Chipping Norton via Stow and Banbury. Stunning. A handy pitstop and half-way point is the Rollright Stones – my ‘first stone circle’ and still one of my favourite, situated high over the Wolds. I wanted to stop there this time as I had been working on my latest and last Windsmith book – now I finally have some head-space for it after handing in Way of Awen – and one of the scenes is set there, involving a dragon (my nod and wink to Devereux’s Dragon Project there in the 70s)! It’s always pleasant to stop somewhere green and peaceful after a couple of hours on the road – when one takes the old lid off, the senses suck in the surroundings like a man dying of thirst. Alas, my idyll this time was shattered by a clay pigeon shoot in the field next to the King’s Stone – a load of wannabe Hoorays practising their ‘peasant-shooting’. I managed to escape the worst of this by walking down to the relative peace of the Whispering Knights, where I sat and ate a sarny in the sun. I thought about the interesting folk tale associated with the place:
Once, two hundred years ago, or was it two thousand, there was a king and his army determined to conquer Britain. They had defeated the resistance in battle after battle as far as Little Rollrights when disaster struck. They met a witch who pointed at the conquering king and prophesised: ‘Seven long strides thou shalt take! If Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be!’ His scouts had confirmed that the village of Long Compton was just over the brow of the hill. Optimist in his imminent glory, the king took seven strides forward. Unfortunately, his victory was thwarted by a mound – stubbornly obscuring his view. The witch shrieked: ‘As Long Compton thou canst not see, thou and thy men hoar stones shalt be!’ And the king and his army were all turned to stone…
These petrification tales are common – typically, drunken revellers dancing on into the Sabbath and getting turned to stone for their disrespect, eg the Wedding Stones of Stanton Drew. Christian propaganda, perhaps, but good yarns! Feeling like I had imbibed a little of the cromlech’s ‘dragon energy’, I headed on – to the dirty old town. Northampton!
Here, I visited my mum – checked out the progress on the garden and lent a hand, laying some lawn and planting a cherry tree. My sister turned up and we went for a couple down Dad’s old local, where they had put a plaque up at his corner of the bar. A nice gesture, despite spelling his name wrong! It was quite moving to see it and to raise a jar of his favourite tipple in his memory. That night I caught up with some old friends at the noisy dive that is the Racehorse. It had been a lovely sunny afternoon (if a little fresh over the Wolds) and J, me old mate, had it in his head it would be good to sit out in the garden. Unfortunately, by the time we got there (picking up his mum on route!) it was dark and … freezing. There was an impressive brick chimenea roaring like Dante’s inferno – which made me comment: ‘I always thought Northampton was a gateway to Hell and now I know!’ The various goblin-like denizens – pierced, tattooed, spiked, shaven, studded – hunched over their various poisons, polishing their cynicism, did not dispel the illusion. The Racehorse hasn’t changed since I used to go their as an art student in the late 80s. It’s where old Goths go to die. The freezing night forced us inside, where our eardrums were bombarded by deafening drum ‘n’ bass, making conversation in a group impossible (which renders the whole point of being in a pub, well, pointless in my humble opinion). To find respite from bleeding eardrums, one had to stand outside and freeze – only to risk passive cancer from the smokers. So much for ‘fresh air’. I realised I wasn’t enjoying myself by this point and decided to leave…I must be getting old.
The next day more than made up for a disappointing evening. A walk over Delapre Abbey always straightens me out – it did as a kid growing up there, and it still does. It is my oldest sanctuary. I checked on the progress of the Dad’s tree – and new leaves were growing on it. And the gardens were in their Springtime glory. I ‘stood and stared’ in my grove, letting it work its quiet magic.
Here’s the poem I wrote about the place a few years back:
The Green Abbey
By salmon wisdom I am ever returning
along that avenue of gothic oaks,
towards the white clock tower, still,
above the bolted coach-house.
Perambulating about this accumulation of architecture:
the sandstone hourglass
of my memory mansion.
The crackle of gravel
my favourite track
of the old record office –
the familiar groove spiralling inward.
Into the dog-eared garden,
past the gravestones of pets:
the ghost of my hound leading me on –
playing with me still in his paradise.
So many times he brought me here,
teaching me to follow my instincts,
to listen to nature,
nurturing my fledgling wild-self –
the boypuppy who became a wolf.
Here in a personal wilderness I found solace
from the pain of passion,
first and lost loves,
alienation and aloneness.
but unable to share its bliss.
In make-believe I found my beloved;
playmates in hide-and-seek with passers-by:
a Jack-in-the-Green, without knowing why.
In this nursery of my imagination
I learnt the alphabet of trees, an Adam
naming them octopus heart monkey.
By a foetid pond with broken maw
I cast a witch in shadowy hut;
and gypsy lights winked
in the gloaming;
and grey ladies drifted
in the undead night –
the phantom nuns
who left a legacy of peace
as they paced their sanctuary:
every step a prayer.
And here I repair when I grow weary of the world
for their healing grace –
a taste of the grail
that restores my wasteland
with the memory of summer,
of sunfat days of timeless youth,
of picnics for virgin palates,
of blind kisses beneath staring stars,
under champagne moons.
Where goddesses of fish and cat
enticed from their fastnesses
I gleaned an inkling of the Muse.
And in the grove of my Lord and Lady
I silently communed, vertebrae to bark.
Above, tall and strong,
how they watched me grow –
their heartwood my Axis Mundi:
spine of my history.
Each ring witnessing my full circle –
as past and future pilgrims
rendezvoused with déjà vu
beneath the trysting tree.
O, the oaks of my Arcadia,
archive of my life,
endure always –
keep the world at bay.
As in amber be the bowers
of blessed Delapre.
Kevan Manwaring 1999-2004
After doing some work on the garden, I bid farewell to mum, and headed south – deciding to risk a visit to my ‘long-lost’ brother, now residing in Buckinghamshire just down the A43. I hadn’t seen Gary for about seven years – and even birthday and Christmas cards had dried up. I don’t know why – because we always got on okay. It saddened me to think I had a brother in the world who didn’t acknowledge me and I decided to do something about it. I had tried to ring that morning but got no reply and so, somewhat nervously, I decided to risk just dropping by. As it was still early and I hadn’t eaten lunch I made a beeline for Jack’s Hill Café first, just outside Towcester on the A5, a famous biker greasy spoon, where they were having a ‘Ton-up Day’. The carpark was looking healthily full of mean machines as I turned up on my humble Zuki. A Stones-sounding and looking rock band (The Rocketeers) was playing in front of the café and there was a nice vibe. I got me a ‘biker’s breakfast’ (albeit a veggie variety) and sat down to soak up the oil and grease. Luvverly! Slurping down my cuppa, I wandered around, checking out the big bikes and the couple of stalls – one about the charity, Riders for Health, and the other, promoting Riders’ Digest (which I thought might be interested in a page from Bard on the Bike). A raffle ticket and a promo copy later, I sat on my bike and listened to the second set of the band – bluesy Americana – before heading off to find my brother’s place.
Amazingly, I found it – a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately my mum had shown me some photos of the place the previous day so I recognised the house as I rode past it. I pulled up in the layby in front of their house, just as my brother was coming out of the house. I thought he had seen me, but when I flipped my helmet up and called out ‘Hello!’ he politely responded and carried on pottering in the garden. I found out later he thought I was just another walker – they’re used to ramblers parking there. Like Odysseus, returning after twenty years I was not recognised by my own relative. And so I got off the bike, pulled her up onto the centre stand and lock the front wheel, before approaching the garden. Gary was just out of sight, putting some bread out for the birds – and I poked my head around the corner and said: ‘Would you be my brother?’ He finally recognised me and held out a hand – but I gave him a fraternal hug. This was a big moment for me. Here, in front of me, was my brother, looking so … solid, with his black beard and mature Clooney-esque looks. Seeing a sibling, especially one of the same gender, makes you feel more real somehow. You are not alone in the world. Another shares your genes. It’s a powerful feeling. A little awkward at first, but not unwelcoming, he showed me his impressive vegetable patch. It turns out he has green fingers. Clearly he has ‘put down roots here’, and I can see why – a lovely place far from the madding crowd. He invited me in and we slowly, hesitantly caught up. His partner, Lisa, finally arrived – she had wondered why Gary had invited a ‘stranger’ into the house! I wasn’t a stranger, I was his brother … but it had been too long – we were practically strangers – and we had a lot of catching up to do. More than was possible in my brief visit – the kick-off of the big game was within the hour, which somewhat curtailed it – but the main thing was the ice had been broken. Lisa’s son was introduced, a nice lad called Jay. I think I won him over with one of my muffins. Lisa made us a much welcome coffee. Gary and I swapped emails – a good sign. Before I left we had a couple of photos – evidence! Look, I have a brother! And hopefully Gary won’t forget he has one now. I am happy for him – he has a nice house, partner, step-son, is doing well in his job (lucky to have one in this current climate). He’s just got on with his life and I can’t blame him for that … but the old call or card wouldn’t have gone amiss! Don’t be a stranger, bruv! I’ve missed ya!
Still I left glowing with happiness – and had to stop at the next village just to assimilate the experience. Composed, I carried on my way – taking a short-cut along a B road to cut out Banbury, passing thru the picture postcard Deddington. I stopped off at Ma Larkin’s, another café popular with bikers (several were parked up, also out enjoying the rays) for a galvanising cuppa for the road and then headed back down the Fosseway into the setting sun. When the weather’s with you, there aint nothin’ better than riding on two wheels.
I was enjoying myself so much, blatting along, I decided to take an impromptu ‘alternative route’ back, turning right at Cirencester – taking the lovely Minchinhampton Valley into Stroud and calling in on my friend who has a stunning place on the edge of the Cotswolds … but that’s another story.